History repeats the old conceits, whether you are a twenty-one year old college student publishing his first novel, or the disaffected rich kids he writes about. Twenty-five years after the publication of Less Than Zero, after the controversy of American Psycho and the inevitable backlash, after the genre experimentation of Lunar Park, Brett Easton Ellis comes full circle, revisiting the lives of the characters that made him famous in the first place.
But do they need to be revisited? According to screenwriter William Goldman, sequels are whores' movies. Can the same be said for those of the literary variety? Even if money isn't an author's primary motivation, the road to hell is paved with shitty sequels. Greedy readers ache to know, "what's next?", but give them the wrong "next," and you run the risk of ruining your legacy. Just ask George Lucas. I'm not saying Less Than Zero is the Star Wars of over-sexed casual drug users who grew up in the 80's, but if Terby was Ellis' Ewoks, the potential for Imperial Bedrooms to be his Phantom Menace is there.
Oddly appropriate Star Wars comparisons aside, revisiting a cult classic is always a dicey proposition. Ellis has reused characters before, but he's never given us a full-on sequel. So after a not so subtle jab at the Less Than Zero film adaptation, he wisely hits us with the familiar. It is Christmas time in LA, and Clay has just returned home from the east cost after what feels like ages, but in reality has only been months. Upon his arrival, he is immediately sucked into the perpetual cycle of meaningless socializing and petty bickering he thought he left behind.
Despite the similarities to Zero, this isn't some tired retread. Ellis incorporates many of the storytelling tricks he's learned along the way- from post modern flourishes to filmic devices to pseudo-autobiographical touches. And if it isn't immediately apparent from the unassuming Chandler quote at the beginning of the book, when the blue jeep starts following Clay on page ten you'll realize Ellis is once again playing with genre. That doesn't mean he's gone all mystery novel on us, just that he's willing to take some risks. Because although we eventually discover the identity of the mystery driver, much is left unresolved, plot-wise.
Yes, there is a plot. More-so than in Less Than Zero, but I wouldn't exactly call the book plot driven. Clay, now approaching middle age, is a successful screenwriter, returning home to help cast his most recent movie (called The Listeners, in another jab from Ellis.) I don't know what kind of bizarro version of Hollywood allows a lowly writer to have input into the casting process, but Clay has reached that level. He meets a wannabe actress at a party and promises her an audition, which leads to an obligatory sexual relationship. That's when the obsession sets in and things start to get weird.
Ellis maintains a delicate balance, recreating the looseness of Zero while simultaneously using events to propel the story forward. The mixture of old and new makes for vu that is both deja and jamais. Yet, if Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms were read back to back, you'd never be able to tell there was a 25 year gap between the writing of the two. And just like Clay, the reader can't help but be sucked right back into that world.
Maybe I shouldn't have been so cynical. The moral of the story is this- have faith in good writers. With Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis successfully beats the sequel odds, much like Douglas Coupland did last year with Generation A. Both authors revisited the cult debuts that made them famous and both books don't suck. Imperial Bedrooms may be a sequel, but it is also a strong new work, not a nostalgic flight of fancy. It is the perfect companion piece to Less Than Zero, and the two bookend Ellis' current oeuvre nicely.